Westmont Magazine Finding Hope in the Midst of Desperation
When she learned she had breast cancer, Barbara Malacarne Milligan ’71 cried out to God. “Why did you let this happen to me? Do I really have to lose my breast? Will the cancer keep coming back and eventually kill me?” She persisted in questioning as she worked through her emotional turmoil, and God responded with his presence and his love.
This struggle led her to seek out stories from other women and write “Desperate Hope,” a book about experiencing God in the midst of breast cancer. She chose the title because it blended her initial desperation and the hope in God that sustained her and the women she interviewed. InterVarsity Press released the book this fall.
Sixteen women and three husbands shared their stories with Barbara, and their honest, thoughtful comments appear throughout the book. Jane Higa, vice president for student life and dean of students at Westmont, is one of them. Most of the women have survived the illness so far, but three did not, and their perspectives add both poignancy and reality to the account. “I was reluctant at first to talk to women who were dying,” she notes. “But they were full of hope, confident that God had their lives in His hands.”
The book features much practical information for women suffering from cancer along with resources for their families and friends. For example, Barbara suggests ways women can recover their sense of sexuality after breast cancer surgery, and includes advice for their husbands as well. One appendix tells women how to set up a spiritual support network, and another explains how to help a woman who has been diagnosed with breast cancer.
While “Desperate Hope” is her first book, Barbara is an experienced freelance writer and editor. After teaching high school for seven years, she coordinated publicity for a non-profit organization and then worked in the public affairs department of a health clinic. John, her husband of 23 years, produces technical publications for both print and electronic media.
Barbara received encouragement as a writer from a Westmont history professor, Carole Fuester.
“College was very difficult for me academically because I had severe test anxiety,” she explains. “In many classes I felt lost and inadequate, but Professor Fuester praised my writing. That conversation stayed with me and made me realize I had strengths in other areas besides test-taking.”
English Professor John Sider also recognized Barbara’s skill and encouraged her to write from an emotional point of view, emphasizing psychological aspects. She has found this advice helpful and appreciated the concern he expressed for her success.
Rusty Springer, who was then dean of students, helped Barbara develop confidence as a leader. “She trusted me to serve as a resident assistant for transfer students living in a motel, and that meant a lot to me,” she recalls. Barbara values her ongoing friendships with Rusty and with John Sider and his wife, Anna.
While Barbara emphasizes hope in her book, she avoids giving easy answers to painful questions. “God has not promised us freedom from sickness, pain, fatigue and other side effects of cancer treatment,” she concludes. “But he has promised us that he will be with us and will show us his infinite love.”
She considers her experience with breast cancer “worthwhile” because of the ways God increased her hope in him. “That in no way means that we see our cancer as a gift or as a friend. It is still an insidiously evil disease that we know didn’t come from God. But for many of us, God changed our experience into a gift of hope.”